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EARTHQUAKE IN CHINA: FAMILIES TORN ASUNDER

Young survivors of quake fear loss of parents

Many have not heard from their loved ones. Volunteers try to comfort them.

May 18, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

CHENGDU, CHINA — For days, Wang Zhangyang tried to reach her parents, calling and sending text messages. For days, no one picked up.

She kept telling herself, it's just the poor signals. Once that's been fixed, she thought, she will surely hear back from her loved ones near the epicenter of last week's magnitude 7.9 earthquake.

"I escaped. I can only hope that they are just as lucky as me," said the 18-year-old with big eyes but no trace of a smile, who was at school when the quake hit.

The worst natural disaster to strike China in three decades shredded tens of thousands of families in Sichuan province in the blink of an eye. Many of those who died were children, killed when their schools collapsed. But many of the youngsters who survived now face the grim prospect of possibly living the rest of their lives as orphans.

On Saturday, a group composed of about 70 high school students who had lost contact with their parents was brought to a medical university here in the provincial capital. Each member was then paired with a college student who had volunteered to adopt him or her as a pal until the young survivors might reunite with their families.

"Don't lose hope until you know for sure," medical student Zhang Lei, 20, told Wang Chao, 16, who had yet to find his parents and 14-year-old sister.

As they ate lunch in a cafeteria packed with teens, a girl broke out in hysterical sobs that made everybody pause.

Chen Rei, 19, hadn't had a proper meal in days. But the sight of a plate of good food only made her miss her mother more. "I don't like to live in the dorm, so my mom rented an apartment near the school so she could take care of me," Chen said.

Now, her mother was dead, crushed when the three-story building collapsed.

Unlike most of the students cared for here, Chen had been able to find a parent: Her father had not been home when the earth shook Monday.

"She told me she went back three times to try to dig for her mother, but she was not strong enough," said Chen Hongdi, who rushed to his daughter's side after a friend had seen her face on television the night before.

In the dorms where the new friends sleep together on bunk beds, 17-year-old Yang Yu cowered behind a white mosquito net. Her father died last year in a car accident; now, she may have lost her mother too.

Yu is terrified of the future without the only parent she had left and with a younger brother who might be dependent on her.

"I feel so much pressure," she said in a soft whisper. "There has been so much death around me."

Despite their sadness, most of the young people who narrowly escaped death themselves seemed prepared for the worst.

"If anything should happen to my parents, we must try our best to go on living," said Dao Chao, 16, holding back tears. "I know that's what they would want us to do."

Across Chengdu, residents who heard that possible orphans were being transferred to their city showed up in droves to donate food and clothing.

One of them, Zhu Jianling, said her heart went out to the children because a 20-month-old toddler she knows of had lost his parents.

"People saw the baby's mother fall down as she ran out of the house. The father went to help," Zhu said. "Neither of them made it out alive."

The baby survived because he was in a day-care center that was evacuated in time. But the sound of the child crying for his parents haunts her. She wants to make sure that no child feels alone in this world.

"We want these children to know they are not really orphans," Zhu said. "We are all part of the same family."

--

chingching.ni@latimes.com

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